Sunday, April 20, 2008

Ehrman and Wright

Fr. Al Kimel has drawn my attention to an exchange at Blogalogue between N. T. Wright and Bart Ehrman on the so-called "problem of evil". Regular readers will remember that I, along with Dr. Michael Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae, have blogged frequently on the issues involved in theodicy, but having had a look at this most recent exchange I have to say that it continues to astound me how simplistic and thoughtless the popular treatment of the problem has become. To read Ehrman's piece is to hear a litany of the typical complaints one hears from a materialistic world: there is too much pain and suffering in the world, and, well, sorry folks, there's no way you're going to convince me that there's a caring God out there when I get tears in my eyes watching CNN. It's as if generations of sophisticated and complex theological and philosophical argument amount to nothing when compared to the emotional attitudes of a single individual living in a highly particularized time and place.

This, indeed, seems to be at least partly the point of Wright's reply, when he writes:
I want to ask: were you not aware, earlier, of the scale of evil in the world – the Holocaust, the dying babies, the inexplicable ‘natural’ disasters, and so on? You’re not implying, are you, that people (like me, for instance) who still hold to Christian faith are somehow failing to notice these horrors, or to reflect soberly and deeply on them? And if, as you say, your book (and your blog posting) do not actually constitute an argument against Christian faith (‘If you reflect on these issues you’ll see that the Christian claim is incredible’), might it not seem that the shift in your own position which you have described is a shift which came about, not because of logical argument, but because of other (unspecified) factors, with the problem of suffering providing a kind of intellectual backdrop to a journey whose main energy was supplied from elsewhere?
I think this is a rather important insight, and its importance is not diminished by its obviousness. Just as atheists and agnostics are often--perhaps way too often--tempted to assume that believers only believe for emotional or psychological reasons, so too, it seems rather obvious to me, every non-believer almost certainly has emotional and psychological reasons for not believing that will trump any and every legitimate argument posed against them. This is not to say, of course, that non-believers don't also subscribe to certain philosophical arguments that they think are in their favor, it is merely to note that the absence of such arguments would not deter many of them from continuing to believe what they believer.

The other elements of Wright's analysis are deployed more specifically against Ehrman's particular argument, which, it seems to me, is grounded not so much in deep theological introspection but in the fatuousness of his original religious foundation.
The second large, general point concerns your handling, and description, of the Bible and Christian faith. I want to take issue with your analysis of the biblical material. This is where I must refer to my own treatment of the same problem in Evil and the Justice of God, which forms part of the groundwork for my new book Surprised by Hope. I don’t know if you’ve read either of them, but in the former I give a very different account from you of the Old Testament material, seeing the call of Abraham not (as on your p. 66) as God simply calling Abraham ‘to be in a special relationship with him’ but as the moment when God launches the long-range plan to rescue the world from its misery. In other words, I read the story of Israel as a whole (not merely in its individual parts, which by themselves, taken out of that context, might be reduced to ‘Israel sinned; God punished them’, etc.,) as the story of theodicy-in-practice: ‘this is the narrative through whose outworking the creator God will eventually put all things to rights.’ Hence the promises of Isaiah 11 and so forth.
As Wright notes, Ehrman, like other Christians from his tradition, has (or, I suppose "had" is the better word) the tendency to spot-check individual parts of the Scriptures as though they are stand-alone commodities that can be tested independently of the multitude of variables that give them their substance and their meaning to actual believers (as opposed to casual readers, for whom they are merely texts).

Wright concludes with a simple, straightforward, and yet absolutely essential point:
In particular, of course, the resurrection of Jesus is absolutely central for me. Like many people ancient and modern, you don’t find it credible. If I didn’t believe it I wouldn’t have the beliefs I do about other things.
I don't suppose that any genuine Christian could disagree with these words. To me, the difficulty of making sense out of the Resurrection is far greater than the alleged difficulty of making sense out of suffering in the world. Indeed, to make sense out of the former just is to make sense out of the latter, and yet the former involves far greater empirical difficulties than the latter, which is relatively simple by comparison. Belief in the literal Resurrection of Jesus is a necessary condition on the truth of everything in the Gospel, and there is literally no reason to believe in it at all beyond one's capacity to take the word of Scripture at face value. The capacity to do that requires an act of supernatural grace, a further feature of our faith that takes it beyond the realm of the empirical. Ehrman has, of course, written about these issues, too, but his puzzlement about the problem of evil is far more mysterious than the problem of evil itself.


John Farrell said...

Excellent points. I've read Wright's Evil and the Justice of God, and highly recommend it.

His larger tomes, meanwhile, are staring me in the face....

fruitfulfaith said...

Thanks Scott,

I'm also following this interaction. I really appreciate Wright, and look forward to his input.

I also look forward to browsing your own blog for "Theodical content"...



Apollodorus said...

...would not deter many of them from continuing to believe what they believer.


I wish I could be as unperturbed by the problem of evil as you are.

Scott Carson said...

I think most people have their stumbling blocks. The problem of evil is not one of mine, but there are others, as I mentioned in the post. If you didn't find the problem of evil to be so troublesome, you would probably find something else troublesome. Tom Kreitzberg of Disputations has suggested that our trouble spots are actually opportunities for trust; I don't know whether that's really true, but it is sometimes a comfort.

Geoffrey said...

I have done a brief analysis on the problem of evil at my blog:

Please, feel free to read and comment on it.

fl35h said...

I found it interesting when you wrote:

"Belief in the literal Resurrection of Jesus is a necessary condition on the truth of everything in the Gospel, and there is literally no reason to believe in it at all beyond one's capacity to take the word of Scripture at face value."

I've always found the historicity of the resurrection to be one of the stronger arguments in my arsenal - interesting that you would say that there is 'literally no reason to believe in it'.

Have you read much on it, for instance Wrights series 'Christian Origins & the Question of God'?

Scott Carson said...

I never said that there is literally no reason to believe in it (as your own first quotation shows). What I said is that there is literally no reason to believe in it beyond one's capacity to take the Scriptures at their face value, which requires an act of supernatural grace.

I'm happy to stand by that assessment.